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Cracking the Code: Empowering Students in Post-Secondary Transition with Executive Function Support

When high school students with good grades transitioning to college or post-secondary education, parents and educators often assume that these capable students will manage their time, become more responsible, and elevate their levels of independence to meet their new demands. After all, these young adults performed well enough to move ahead to the next phase of their educational journey. If students are not successful in the transition immediately, parents may assume that their young adult will make the adjustment with time.

It is important to recognize that while post-secondary education requires an increased level of student performance, there is often less overall support provided on a daily basis. The new set of demands on a student's day includes attending classes scheduled at various times, searching for resource materials previously provided by instructors, navigating the social scene, and living (possibly) in a self-directed environment. These challenges require planning, organization, emotional regulation, and other "executive functioning" skills that the adolescent may or may not have in their current toolkit. Executive functions are higher level skills that help individuals meet goals, problem-solve systematically, follow multi-step directions, ignore distractions, and demonstrate self-control.

While executive functioning skills follow a developmental sequence, they continue to develop well into adolescence and early adulthood. According to Russell Barkley (1997), "the problem is that executive skill weaknesses often present as if they were motivationally driven; that is, as if the student could exercise voluntary control over them." When parents remark that their child needs to "work harder" or "put in more effort," what do these statements actually infer or communicate to the student? What does “trying harder” look like?

If a student can perform well in one subject area and struggles with others, it could be that their academic or executive skill sets align better with the expectations of that course. On the other hand, it is easy for the student to become resigned to feelings of disappointment and inadequacy when they have put forth the time and energy into their studies but have not achieved success. If they have consistently performed well in the past and the transition to a more rigorous, independent environment has resulted in a decline in performance, it is worthwhile to consider whether executive skills may need to be explicitly taught and supported. The student, perhaps in the company of a supportive person, may wish to determine whether additional services are needed.

Given the developmental nature of executive functioning skills, the student may not know how to begin unraveling what supports are needed to create meaningful changes in their thinking or actions. At the age of 18 years old, these young adults now assume the responsibilities to seek out help or guidance, which may feel daunting and overwhelming. The following questions may guide discussions with the learner to determine whether executive functioning interventions are needed to support personal growth and scholastic performance:

1. Are you finding it challenging to manage your time effectively? How are you deciding when to study or complete the work in various classes?

2. What does your organizational system look like and how is it maintained?

3. Have you experienced difficulties in staying organized with all of the various assignments? Can you find all necessary materials when needed?

4. Are you able to manage your emotions or are there times when you are overwhelmed by strong feelings of displeasure, frustration, sadness, or anger? Can you identify a trigger or situation that might result in a mood change?

5. In high school, were there supports (i.e., study guides, tutoring sessions, online programs, graphic organizers, etc.) formerly used to help with studying that are not currently available?

6. Are you finding it difficult to pay attention during lectures or study sessions?

7. When a concept is not readily understood, how are you getting the information to complete the assignment?

8. When you identify an obstacle or a setback in your performance, are you able to adapt and change what you are doing?

9. Have you thought about what contributes to a successful day? What plans or goals contribute to a good day?

10. What happens when you make a mistake or get “stuck” during a testing or work situation?

Interventions, or instructional strategies to address executive functioning deficits, need to be matched to specific areas of need. In the beginning, when learning and practicing new skills, students will benefit from encouragement and discussions about what is working and what is not. By asking essential questions, parents may develop a greater understanding and appreciation for how to guide their young adult in moving forward. Don’t forget to capitalize on your adolescent’s strengths and skills. These are also important for advancement and empowerment.

Cogmotion Learning, LLC services help to target areas of need through personalized motivational interviews and completion of standardized behavioral checklists. As an outgrowth of the intake process, a tailor-made executive functioning plan is developed. It's not just a plan; it's your roadmap to success. And we don't just hand it to you – we walk the journey with you. Our weekly training and follow-up coaching sessions are the compass that guides your every step. We're here to inspire, motivate, and empower you to own your destiny!


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